Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

A Face in the Crowd is the story of a man who becomes a rich and popular television star. He follows his ratings closely, he gives the people around him nicknames, he is desperate to be loved, and he craves attention. He eventually decides to use his popularity in politics.

Sound familiar? A Face in the Crowd is really the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the fictional main character of the film, and more than sixty-three years later, his story is eerily familiar.

The story starts in Pickett, Arkansas. A car labeled KGRK rides past the town square, where men are playing checkers. Roving radio reporter Marcia Jeffries has arrived to interview prisoners in the local jail for the radio program “A Face in the Crowd.” She describes her radio station as “the voice of northeast Arkansas.”

Larry Rhodes agrees to sing and play the guitar for Jeffries’s radio program if the sheriff will let him out of jail the following morning. Rhodes is supposed to be in jail for a week for being drunk and disorderly. Jeffries overhears another prisoner call Rhodes by his nickname Lonesome, so she introduces him to her listeners as Lonesome Rhodes. She likes him enough to convince her uncle, the owner of the radio station, to put him on a morning show.

Rhodes’s off-the-cuff, folksy manner is a hit with radio listeners. Women in particular like his observations about how hard they work. They send in fan mail and homemade pies. Local businesses want to increase their radio advertising. Rhodes is popular—and thus he is good for business.

Lonesome Rhodes eventually leaves Pickett, Arkansas, for Memphis, Tennessee, to appear on television. He has a new agent, Joey DePalma, who, like many others, sees profit in Rhodes. On the train about to leave Pickett, Lonesome confides to Marcia, who is accompanying him to Memphis, that he is glad to put the town of Pickett behind him (“I’m glad to shake that dump”), while its residents crowd the train station and cheer him for his send-off. Marcia is shocked by his attitude toward the town and his fans, people who have been sending him letters and pies. But Lonesome smooths it over by saying that Marcia should know by now that he says a lot of things he doesn’t mean. It’s a preview of what’s to come.

(This blog post about A Face in the Crowd contains spoilers, even if you have been following politics since the last presidential campaign.)

In Memphis, Lonesome Rhodes and Marcia Jeffries meet Mel Miller, who works as a writer at the television station. He is the exact opposite of Rhodes. He and Jeffries become friends, but Marcia doesn’t give Mel another romantic thought: She is irresistibly drawn to Rhodes.

The next stop for Lonesome Rhodes is New York City, courtesy of Joey DePalma. Rhodes makes a loud and boisterous entrance at an advertising agency in New York. The advertising agency has been hired by General Haynesworth to sell his company’s latest product, Vitajex tablets. The tablets have nothing of substance in their list of ingredients (a chemist is on hand with a pie chart to declare this at the meeting), but the objective is to sell them as energy tablets. Rhodes suggests that they change the color from white to yellow—because yellow is the color of sunshine and energy—and that the tablets should be advertised as a cure for male impotence. His ability to create enthusiasm based on nothing at best—and on lies at worst—catches on, and he becomes the spokesperson for Vitajex.

The executives at the Madison Avenue advertising company are not happy with Rhodes’s approach to the ads once he appears on air. He never follows their copy (they have researched the effect of certain words on their target audience carefully), he ad libs in front of the camera, and he is a risk because he is uncooperative and unpredictable. He is bucking the status quo and established practice, and he is antagonizing the media establishment in general. But not his audience. The people seem to love him whatever he does and wherever he goes.

General Haynesworth invites Lonesome Rhodes to his home to introduce him to Senator Worthingon Fuller. Haynesworth wants Fuller to be the next president of the United States. Marcia Jeffries points out that Fuller is a conservative isolationist. Haynesworth’s response is that only the left-wing socialist press in New York City describes Fuller that way. He dismisses her and addresses Rhodes:

General Haynesworth: “Young man, never forget Will Rogers. He was just a gum-chewing, rope-twirling cowboy. But he got to where he was telling off presidents and kings.”

Joey DePalma: “General, I’m thinking this is the second section of the same train.”

General Haynesworth: [ignoring DePalma] “I’ve always gone in for long-range planning. Right now, Lonesome is merely popular. Oh, very popular. But Lonesome Rhodes could be made into an influencer. A wielder of opinion. An institution positively sacred to this country, like the Washington Monument. I suspect your idealistic young lady [Jeffries] disagrees with me. But my study of history has convinced me that every strong and healthy society from the Egyptians on, the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that, in TV, we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”

General Haynesworth uses his own influence and money to promote Lonesome Rhodes, who will coach Worthington Fuller and convince his viewers to vote for him. Rhodes is installed in a New York City penthouse. Even though he is sleeping with other women, he is lonely. He proposes marriage to Jeffries, who wants to accept but is afraid that Rhodes will hurt her. Then Rhodes’s Arkansas wife shows up. She wants three thousand dollars a month to keep quiet about Rhodes and his tendency toward violence. Jeffries still thinks that she will marry Rhodes, but he judges a baton-twirling contest back in Arkansas and marries the girl who wins (she’s only seventeen). Only then does he go to Juarez, Mexico, to get a quick divorce from wife number one.

When Lonesome Rhodes starts working on Senator Fuller’s image and speaking style, the senator and his backers need some convincing that Rhodes is right for the job.

General Haynesworth: “We’ve got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, a television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. Time for a change in the mess in Washington, more bang for the buck, punch lines, and glamor. Yes, Mr. Purvis, even glamor.”

Purvis: [newspaper owner supporting Senator Fuller] “General Haynesworth, my papers have supported Worthington Fuller from the first day he ran for public office. He’s not a grandstander, a backslapper, or a baby kisser.”

General Haynesworth: “That’s exactly what he’s got to become. The majority of this country don’t see eye-to-eye with him. We’ve got to find thirty-five million buyers for the product we call Worthington Fuller.”

Purvis: “I think you underestimate the respect which people—”

Lonesome Rhodes: “Respect? Did you ever of anybody buying any product—beer, hair rinse, tissue—because they respect it? You’ve got to be loved, man. Loved.”

Mel Miller shows up in New York City and tells Marcia Jeffries that he has just closed a book deal: He plans to publish a book about Lonesome Rhodes: Demagogue in Denim. His idea is to expose Lonesome Rhodes for the fraud that he really is. But Marcia Jeffries is the one who exposes Lonesome Rhodes. She shows up one night during his television show and turns the sound back on, when he is talking with other cast mates about how stupid his audience members are. His fans turn on him, and he loses all his endorsements and connections.

Mel Miller takes Marcia Jeffries to Lonesome Rhodes’s penthouse because he thinks she’ll never be able to make a complete and permanent break with him if she doesn’t admit to Rhodes that she was the one who turned the mike back on. She does tell him, but it is still hard for her to leave him behind. She and Mel are already outside on the pavement when Rhodes is shouting for her from his penthouse balcony, and she still has second thoughts. It’s Mel who finally convinces her that she is making the right decision.

I wish Marcia Jeffries had been a stronger character. She does make two of the most important decisions for the film’s plot: She wants to put Lonesome Rhodes on his own show (although that decision has to be approved by her uncle), and she exposes Lonesome Rhodes to his adoring public. She wavers after making that second decision, and she might have turned back to Rhodes if Mel Miller hadn’t been with her. Most of the male characters are waiting to use Rhodes’s popularity for their own gain; when they get the chance to profit from Rhodes, Jeffries is tossed aside. But perhaps the story wouldn’t be quite so compelling if Jeffries had found it easier to break with Rhodes and had done it sooner.

And I wish that A Face in the Crowd wasn’t so eerily prescient. Change 1957 to 2016 or 2020 and change all the names, and it would be the same story, but with social media added to the mix. After seeing the film, it’s hard not to wonder how this story is repeated again and again.

I watched A Face in the Crowd on a DVD from the Criterion Collection. The DVD includes three great features: an interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of the Post-HUAC Films; an interview with Evan Dalton Smith, who wrote a biography about Andy Griffith; and a documentary called Facing the Past (2005). All three are worth watching, but I’ll include some points only from the interview with Ron Briley because they illustrate my own point that the story in A Face in the Crowd is nothing new:

Will Rogers (1879–1935) was an inspiration for the character of Lonesome Rhodes. Rogers was from Oklahoma, but he never entertained any Okies, for instance, only the elite in entertainment and in business. Rogers’s son, Will Rogers Jr., said that his father’s private image didn’t match his public image, that of an everyman, a man of the people.

Arthur Godfrey (1903–1983) portrayed a down-home country image, although he was born in Manhattan. He hosted a variety show and argued with its sponsors because he didn’t always follow their instructions about what to say about their products (similar to Lonesome Rhodes).

Huey Long (1893–1935), a Louisiana politician during the Great Depression, helped the poor, but he put his own political interests first. His story has been told in print and on film in a fictionalized story: All the King’s Men is the title of the novel by Robert Penn Warren and of the two films, one released in 1949 and one in 2006, that are based on Warren’s novel.

May 28, 1957, release date    Directed by Elia Kazan    Screenplay by Budd Schulberg    Based on the short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” by Budd Schulberg    Music by Tom Glazer    Edited by Gene Milford    Cinematography by Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.

Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes    Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries    Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma    Walther Matthau as Mel Miller    Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckum    Percy Waram as General Haynesworth    Paul McGrath as Macey    Rod Brasfield as Beanie    Marshall Neilan as Senator Worthington Fuller    Alexander Kirkland as Jim Collier    Charles Irving as S. J. Luffler    Howard Smith as J. B. Jeffries    Kay Medford as the first Mrs. Rhodes    Big Jeff Bess as Sheriff Big Jeff Bess    Henry Sharp as Abe Steiner    Cara Williams as the nurse

Distributed by Warner Bros.    Produced by Newtown Productions, Inc.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Notorious (1946)

August 15, 1946 (New York City premiere), September 6, 1946 (United States), release dates
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Ben Hecht
Music by Roy Webb
Edited by Theron Warth
Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff

Cary Grant as T. R. Devlin
Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman
Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian
Madame Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame Anna Sebastian
Louis Calhern as Captain Paul Prescott, U.S. Secret Service officer
Moroni Olsen as Walter Beardsley, U.S. Secret Service officer
Ricardo Costa as Dr. Julio Barbosa
Reinhold Schünzel as Dr. Anderson, a Nazi conspirator
Ivan Triesault as Eric Mathis, a Nazi conspirator
Eberhard Krumschmidt as Emil Hupka, a Nazi conspirator
Alexis Minotis (billed as Alex Minotis) as Joseph, Sebastian's butler
Wally Brown as Mr. Hopkins
Sir Charles Mendl as Commodore
Fay Baker as Ethel

Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures Inc.
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

Writing about Notorious is a rather daunting task, especially because it can go in so many categories, and I may be the only one who calls it film noir. It’s a classic film; an espionage film; and, of course, a Hitchcock film. Many have already written about it, and even more have already seen it. My copy of the DVD came with two commentaries from two film historians: Rick Jewell and Drew Casper. Notorious is also a very romantic story for a film noir, and I think personal commitment in romance may be its most important theme.

(This blog post about Notorious contains all the spoilers. But honestly, everyone has seen it at least once, right?)

Notorious starts in Miami, Florida, on April 24, 1946, in a federal courthouse. Someone named John Huberman is found guilty of treason and sentenced to prison for twenty years. His daughter Alicia leaves the courtroom hounded by reporters and followed by a detective. It isn’t long before Alicia hosts a party; she already has a reputation for drinking and her relationships with men. That is why Devlin shows up at the party, but he doesn’t have partying in mind. He has a recorded conversation of Alicia threatening to turn in her father when he tries to convince her to join him in helping Nazi officials. Devlin talks about I.G. Farben Industries, which is in Brazil and has been there since before World War II. Devlin and his department are cooperating with the Brazilian government to smoke them out. In spite of her anger toward all cops at every level and the fact that Devlin is a federal agent, Alicia softens toward him. He convinces her to join him in Brazil.

Alex Sebastian, one of the Nazi collaborators working in Brazil, was once in love with Alicia. She’s perfect for the assignment, according to Devlin’s boss Paul Prescott, because she can use her influence and her experience with men to infiltrate Sebastian’s group of spies. Before Devlin and Alicia learn about her undercover assignment, they fall in love. At a meeting between Devlin, Prescott, and one other agent, Devlin is crushed to learn what they have in mind for Alicia, but he doesn’t protest very strongly because this espionage work is still his job. Prescott begins to suspect something between Devlin and Alicia when Devlin leaves behind the bottle of champagne he was supposed to bring to Alicia’s for dinner. The close-up shot of Devlin’s bottle of champagne foreshadows the Nazis’ wine bottle cover-up that Alicia discovers later in the film.

After the meeting with his boss and the fellow agent, Devlin goes straight to Alicia’s. She is already making dinner and expecting the attention of Devlin, her lover; instead, she gets Devlin, the professional agent, bringing her the details of her undercover assignment. Here is part of their conversation:
Alicia: “Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers.”
Devlin: “There are no papers. You land him [Alex Sebastian]. Find out what’s going on inside his house, what the group around him is up to, and report to us.”
Alicia: “I suppose you knew about this pretty little job of mine all the time.”
Devlin: “No, I only just found out about it.”
Alicia: “Did you say anything? [Devlin did.] I mean, that maybe I wasn’t the girl for such shenanigans.”
Devlin: “I figured that was up to you, if you’d care to back out.”
Alicia: “I suppose you told them Alicia Huberman will have this Sebastian eating out of her hand in a couple of weeks. She’s good at that. Always was.”
Devlin: “I didn’t say anything.” [He protested a little.]
Alicia: “Not a word for that little lovesick lady you left an hour ago?”
Devlin: “I told you, that’s the assignment.”
Alicia: “Well, now, don’t get sore, Dev. I’m only fishing for a little birdcall from my dream man. One little remark, such as ‘How dare you gentlemen suggest that Alicia Huberman, the new Miss Huberman, be submitted to so ugly a fate.’ ”
Devlin: “That’s not funny.”
Alicia: “Do you want me to take the job?”
Devlin: “You’re answering for yourself.”
Alicia: “I’m asking you.”
Devlin: “It’s up to you.”

Once Alicia makes contact with Alex Sebastian, the undercover work begins. Sebastian remembers her and is happy to have her back in his life. Later in the film, Alicia goes to the racetrack with Alex Sebastian, where she meets Devlin to deliver her report. It isn’t long before their feelings for one another overtake the updates on their assignment. The following from their conversation at the racetrack could be a continuation of their conversation in Alicia’s apartment:
Alicia: “You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates.”
Devlin: “Pretty fast work.”
Alicia: “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Devlin: “Skip it.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Are you betting on this race?”
Devlin: “No.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Alex says Number 10 is sure to win. He knows the owner.”
Devlin: “Thanks for the tip.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Alex says they’ve been holding him back—”
Devlin: “I can’t help recalling some of your remarks about being a new woman. Daisies and buttercups, wasn’t it?”
Alicia: “You idiot. What are you sore about? You knew very well what I was doing.”
Devlin: “Did I?”
Alicia: “You could have stopped me. Just one word, but no, you wouldn’t, you threw me at him.”
Devlin: “I threw you at nobody.”
Alicia: “Didn’t you tell me to go ahead?” [He didn’t.]
Devlin: “A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do, she tells herself. You almost had me believing that hokey-pokey miracle of yours that a woman like you could ever change her spots.”
Alicia: “You’re rotten.”
Devlin: “That’s why I didn’t try to stop you. The answer had to come from you.”
Alicia: “I see. Some kind of love test.”
Devlin: “That’s right.”

The theme of duty versus love could be better described as love of country (patriotism) versus love for another person (romantic love). Someone like Devlin working for the U.S. government probably has a lot more than the average citizen tied up with love of country. He is cold-hearted at first, but he redeems himself by the end of the film. The heated conversations between Alicia and Devlin encapsulate the inner turmoil both feel and demonstrate the conflict between patriotism and romantic commitment. Even though both are enmeshed in dangerous international intrigue, their romantic entanglements are much easier to relate to, and the film’s focus on the two of them makes their story an enduring one.

Drew Casper claims that Alex Sebastian is a sympathetic character because Alicia, his wife, is taller than he is (that’s a reason?) and he falls head over heels in love with her. But he never shows any care for Alicia. I never got the impression that Alex loves Alicia more than Devlin does, for example. And Alicia’s feelings for Devlin, and his for her, never waver. When Alex finds out that Alicia is an American agent, he turns on her—and quickly. He is interested only in saving himself. He and his mother resort to poisoning Alicia and watching her die a slow and painful death. He shows no remorse about it; he just wants to get rid of her before his Nazi collaborators discover that he has been duped. When Alicia collapses after realizing that Alex and his mother are poisoning her, it’s Dr. Anderson and Joseph, the butler, who help her upstairs. Alex doesn’t even offer her an arm.

For much of the film, Alicia and Devlin bicker. He seems cruel in his devotion to his work, but Devlin finally redeems himself by taking Alicia out of Alex's house and saving her life. When Devlin carries Alicia downstairs, down the same staircase that the doctor and the butler helped her climb, Alex still doesn’t help her and/or Devlin, even when his mother tells him that he must help to make it look like everyone is working together. Alex obeys meekly when his Nazi collaborators ask him to return to the house. It’s hard to believe that he is a Nazi spy and collaborator because he doesn’t fight for Alicia or himself. Alicia seemed more like a conquest and a trophy for Alex.

As I mentioned, my copy of the DVD came with two audio commentaries; both include a lot of information and are worth a listen. I enjoyed Rick Jewell’s a bit more because he describes the events and context surrounding the making of Notorious, including RKO studio history and background on studio heads. He also discusses the genre of the espionage film, which I found fascinating because so many films noir are also espionage films. Because both commentaries provide so much information, I’ll concentrate on one point from each that I found the most fascinating. For Rick Jewell, it’s the genre of espionage films and its history. For Drew Casper, it’s the moral ambiguity portrayed by all the main characters. 

The genre of espionage films has a long history. They usually emphasize a long list of themes: adventure, suspense, politics, duty, trust, loyalty, professionalism, romance, patriotism, intelligence, war or the possibility of war, among others. War or the possibility of war is perhaps the biggest overarching theme. Espionage films were originally more interested in female spies, especially in the early twentieth century. Examples include Spies (1928), Dishonored (1931), and Mata Hari (1931). The Germans became established as the bad guys during World War I, a trend that lasted through the Cold War era. For Hitchcock, espionage films and suspense thrillers are very similar. He directed several espionage films in Great Britain before coming to the United States.

Notorious deepens the traditional themes of the espionage genre. It handles ethical issues, including the question of whether the ends justify the means. Alicia is not trained for her assignment, but her U.S. handlers want her to prostitute herself and are rather cavalier about her welfare; after all, she already has a bad reputation for drinking and sleeping with men. Values are compromised for the sake of the U.S. government, for the ideal of democracy. Her handlers are as compromised as the Nazi conspirators. Notorious changes the genre by acknowledging espionage as a dirty business: Espionage is, at best, a morally ambiguous profession.

DVD commentary by film professor Drew Casper:
All the main characters, including the U.S. agents, are morally ambiguous and possess both positive and negative traits. Alicia Huberman drinks too much, falls very much in love with Devlin, and is poisoned later in the film. Alicia is a person is out of control. She finds it very difficult to trust others. Devlin doesn’t trust women. He’s not as self-possessed as he tries to portray. He is willing to use Alicia for duty to country, although I think Casper is right about the combination of duty and lack of trust that causes Devlin to hold back at the start of his romance with Alicia. Paul Prescott, Devlin’s boss, is very cavalier about Alicia’s well-being. He is shown eating crackers in bed and warning Devlin against going to the Sebastian household. Devlin maintains that Alicia must be in some kind of trouble because she hasn’t made contact with him for five days. Prescott thinks she must be having fun in her party life with Sebastian. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the time, objected to the way that the agents were portrayed in the film, but Hitchcock didn’t change anything about the agents in Notorious.